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2015 Movie Challenge: Lolita

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30/52: A movie based on a book 

What else did you think I’d do for this chapter of the challenge?  There is no Gone With the Wind.  There is no Lord of the Rings.  There is only Lolita.  Now, I am going to try hard to focus on this as a film, not as a translation of my favorite book from the page to the screen, just as a film directed by Stanley Kubrick.  It’s silly and pedantic to cry “the novel was better!!!!!” without engaging with the film adaptation on its own terms, so I will try earnestly to avoid that particular trap.  Nevertheless, I have very strong feelings about Lolita the novel, so I’m sure those will color the following review accordingly.  Look out.

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You may not know the story, if you’ve fallen victim to the popular misunderstanding of Lolita as a smutty book about a teenage seductress, so I think a brief recap is more in order now than ever: Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has accepted a lectureship at Beardsley College in Ohio, and he’s decided to spend the summer in Ramsdale, New Hampshire.  Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) has a room to rent in her kitschy home, and she clearly takes an instant liking to Humbert.  For his part, he finds her brash American vulgarity off-putting – but when she shows him her garden, and her adolescent daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), he changes his tune.  He moves in, desperate to be close to Lolita.  Charlotte is equally desperate to be close to Humbert.  Charlotte decides unilaterally to ship Lolita off to summer camp, to Humbert’s mild heartbreak; he cheers up when he finds a note from Charlotte informing him that she’s in love with him, and that if he’s still there when she returns from dropping off Lolita at camp, it will mean that he loves her and wants to marry her, and be a father to her little girl.  A few weeks of married ennui later, Charlotte finds Humbert’s diary, in which he details his obsession with Lolita.  She races out of the house, gets hit by a car, and dies.  Humbert picks up Lolita from camp, and they consummate their relationship in a hotel room.  She “initiates” – but he doesn’t exactly say no.  The father-daughter duo, at least in public, move to Beardsley and experience unending domestic strife.  He’s maniacally protective and jealous; she’s a teenage girl.  She wants to be in the school play.  He agrees to let her act in it after he receives a strange visit from a man identifying himself as school psychologist Dr. Zempf.  Lo and behold, she’s a triumph in the play – but they have a huge fight afterwards, and decide to leave Beardsley forever.  A car pursues them as they drive across America.  When Lolita falls ill in some anonymous Western town, Humbert is obliged to leave her in a hospital.  An “uncle” checks her out – and Lolita is gone, for three years.  She writes to Humbert when she and her new husband, and their baby in utero, need money to move to Alaska.  Humbert gives $13,000, and asks who it was that she ran away with.  Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), she tells him, the famous playwright, bon vivant, scholar, pervert – whom Humbert sets out to destroy.

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I’d mis-remembered how good certain aspects of Kubrick’s Lolita were, and I don’t want to neglect mentioning them.  The actors are all superb, and all seem to prove that they’d have been equal to inhabiting their characters in a more Nabokovian screen version.  Mason is surely dashing and debonair, as Humbert imagines himself to be, but he’s also inherently awkward and shy.  This squares well with the H.H. of the novel: handsome enough to catch every female’s eye, but too nervous and inwardly focused to know what to do after that.  Winters – once the roommate of none other than Marilyn Monroe, if you can believe it! – is as obnoxious as she is heartbreaking; this, too, suits the Charlotte of the novel, whose poshlost-y pronouncements and gooey sentimentality cause Humbert to loathe and pity her in equal measure.  Lyon is as bratty and fey as any Lo could ever be.  She doesn’t act like a child actor; she just acts like an easily bored teenage girl.  And Sellers is probably the best Quilty we’ll ever see onscreen, bar none.

Additionally, Kubrick’s Lolita is very funny, very often.  This is something I think too many people miss when they read Lolita, and something that seems like one of Kubrick’s inventions in the movie.  Not the case.  He correctly interpreted Nabokov’s pitch-black comic sense of humor, and sprinkled it throughout his film.  I laugh every time Charlotte coos, “Oh, Hum, you just touch me and I go limp as a noodle!” – to which Hum replies, “Yes, I know the feeling.” Racy stuff!

Despite these good points, the film falls flat.  It falls flat as an adaptation of Lolita, of course, but it also falls flat as a film in its own right.  I was amazed to see that, on iTunes, Kubrick’s Lolita is classified as a “romance” – but then I watched it again, and saw these opening credits with this quasi-Rachmaninov theme:

That theme repeats throughout the film.  We are asked to accept, without explanation, that this middle-aged man is violently in love with a 14-year-old girl.  We never learn if he’s attracted to other young girls, nor do we ever see him painted as a pervert.  Due to the Production Code, Kubrick couldn’t include the (limited) sex scenes present in the novel – but nowhere in the film are we invited to think of Humbert as anything worse than a man in unrequited love with a brat.  Taken by itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It allows for some affecting scenes – Humbert burying his face in Lolita’s bed after she leaves for camp, tears streaming down when he sits up to take Charlotte’s letter; Humbert sobbing hysterically when Lolita refuses to leave her husband and come with him – but it doesn’t sit right.  The film never admits how old Lolita is, but Lyon was 14 going on 15.  She’s older here than she is in the novel, but she’s still an abuse victim.  Humbert occasionally lets us see Lo’s misery in the novel, and it’s jarring.  It makes sense that she acts out as much as she does – because her step-father has been raping her since she was 12.  In the film, she seems to be more or less happy with the way things are – i.e., being in a sexual relationship with a man in his 40s – and she seems to act out simply because she’s bored and she wants to do something other than let Humbert paint her toenails.  Does a film adaptation have to engage with those issues?  Perhaps not, but it seems irresponsible not to.

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In fact, I think that Kubrick – while fully aware of the dark comedy in Nabokov’s book – missed the greater point.  He said that if he’d known how restrictive the Production Code would be, he wouldn’t have bothered making the movie, because it suffered for its lack of eroticism.  He thought the eroticism of their physical relationship was the key to the entire novel, if you please.  He thought that was what Nabokov thought.  There is plenty of eroticism in Lolita, and much of it is crucial to the novel’s thematic structure, but Humbert’s raging lust isn’t erotic.  It’s important to the plot – but the plot isn’t the most important thing in the book.  It’s the skeleton onto which Nabokov has grafted layers and layers of muscle, nerve, skin, sensation, and thought.  To say that your film failed because you weren’t allowed to show Humbert surreptitiously masturbating while Lolita sat on his lap – well, that rather explains why Nabokov described the film as “the swerves of a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”

And from a production standpoint, the film suffers immensely from being shot mostly on soundstages in England.  Near the beginning of Part Two of Lolita, Humbert says:

And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

None of that lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country shows up here – to say nothing of the trail of slime.  America itself is a character in Lolita, and the film did itself a disservice by not attempting to recreate some of that exhilarating, philistine vulgarity that Nabokov found so fascinating.  Rear projections of a few crummy sections of some highway or other in upstate New York do not sufficiently portray American expansiveness.

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Years before he finally wrote Lolita, Nabokov wrote a brief novella called The Enchanter.  It’s the same basic plot structure as Lolita – middle-aged man lusts after young girls, and marries the mother of one whom he particularly craves – but that’s about it.  Nabokov assumed he’d destroyed it, and wanted to keep it that way.  He never liked showing his early drafts or unfinished works: he only wanted the world to see his finished products.  Despite that, Kubrick’s Lolita would probably have been better off adapting The Enchanter instead.  It seems more within the limits of his abilities (considerable as they are) as a filmmaker.  There just hasn’t been an artist and a madman to be able to adapt Lolita to the screen – but I hold out hope.

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2 comments on “2015 Movie Challenge: Lolita

  1. Neville Ross
    August 12, 2015

    It’s still an amazing movie, despite the lack of sex in it (I love how Kubrick used a foot fetish as a substitute for the sex between Lolita and Humbert, particularly the famous scene where Humbert/Mason paints his 16-years old daughter’s toes),but yeah, there should be a version of Lolita that has the elements of the novel in it

    Perhaps someday,somebody could do an animated version (2D pen and ink cel, non-CGI, animated by a Japanese studio like Madhouse in a realistic style)* of this movie that shows all of the elements from the novel you think that are missing.

    *On the other hand, if somebody decides to do a CGI-animated Lolita, I’d hope that the studio does not use the kind of body styles shown in the Pixar and Dreamworks PDI movies, but the design styles of the commercial CGI art programs DAZ Studio, Poser, and Carrera: if this Star Trek fan-made cartoon can be done in it, surely a professional studio could so something with a program similar to id, uncanny valley be damned.

    • mcwhirk
      August 13, 2015

      Kubrick definitely knew how to sublimate the more explicit parts of the novel. The notion of an animated movie could be an interesting way to get around the logistical difficulty of shooting sex scenes with a minor. And I would certainly prefer pen-and-ink to CGI, if that were to be the case; Lo deserves the care and attention of hand-drawn animation, not the weightlessness of computer animation.

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This entry was posted on August 6, 2015 by and tagged , , , .
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